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Monthly Archives: July 2010

3DS – Hands On

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Going into E3, the 3DS was the object of interest. Up until that point, it was an enigma, a promise of something special, and yet three days later, after the world’s media had dispersed, the watching public still had very little to go on. Yes, it rendered images in 3D, but for the first time in modern video gaming history there was no way to show us just how game-changing a new technology was going to be.

The first time you set eyes upon the 3DS for yourself, however, you know. For me it was embodied by a small Yorkie puppy, bounding towards the screen, demanding attention. There he was, with a living room stretching out behind him and his tennis ball bouncing across the floor. The effect of depth almost catches you unawares at first, but as my new fluffy companion went from thrusting his head out of the screen to scampering backwards in pursuit of his ball, you realise you’re witnessing something special.

Part of the beauty is that it just works off the bat. There’s no need to configure the system or wear special glasses; as long as you face straight onto the screen then you will be met with the desired effect. To reinforce this, a score of 3DSs were loaded with a heady mix of demos designed to show off Nintendo’s new toy, with videos of party poppers and champagne corks popping mixed with movie and game trailers alike.

Game trailers

Most of the games on display were there in trailer form only, even if they did allow you to shift the camera about interactively to make the most of the handheld’s principal attraction. Kid Icarus, Mario Kart, Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil were all on display, with the latter in particular showing the power of the 3DS, rendering character models that seemed almost on a par with those seen in Resident Evil 5.

Though Mario Kart saw an ample inclusion of jumps and various protruding pipes onto the raceway, Kid Icarus showed off the new dimension best of all. Whether it was pit-flying through a narrow chasm, firing arrows as he went, or running down the neck of a serpentine beast whilst the screen filled with criss-crossing laser beams, each scene wowed the viewer as characters literally leapt from the panel. Possibly even more impressive was the feat that each of these visually stunning moments retained the feeling that they were integral to the game and not a cheap gimmick to fill it with jutting objects.

Games

Bar the tiny Nintendogs cross-section, where puppies could be petted and balls thrown, there were only two other games available to dabble with. One was Hollywood 61, a puzzle adventure game that seemed very similar to Hotel Dusk in both gameplay and presentation. Approaching a cinema, your cop character began prattling on about various life and love issues, but he soon focused his conversation on a serial killer as the camera slid down a long corridor and entered the main auditorium. A spotlight puzzle greeted us, and once solved it illuminated a stage where an unfortunate soul hung from the rafters. Using the new analogue stick, the camera could then be manipulated to reveal a hidden message proclaiming that we were next.

It was more than passable, but far too early to truly judge. If it continues down its path of using depth as an element in its puzzle solving it may have a promising future, but in all honesty it paled next to what else was on display.

Nostalgia aside, Pilot Wings Resort is what sold the 3DS to me. It had only two modes, but each, even so early on in their inception, summed up the strengths of the new system. The first saw you take control of a man strapped to a jetpack, your aim to pop the various balloons that littered the island, whilst the second put you into a plane’s cockpit and liberally scattered rings for you to fly through. Both put you in a position where the 3D truly made a difference to your experience.

Although the island itself appears to be repurposed from Wii Sports Resort, take either of your charges skimming through the town’s streets, banking through forests or looping through crevasses found along the coast line, and you’ll instantly see why the 3DS can definitely work. All allegations of “novelty” or “gimmick” can be cast aside as the sense of speed and immersion in the world washes over you. Never have I wanted to explore a world more, and the exhilarating nature of taking in the landscape at speed kept me returning to the demo time after time.

With the inclusion of the 3D screen, many forget another change from the standard DS is the addition of an analogue nub, and Pilot Wing uses this flawlessly. Gentle banking and swooping low over hillsides, the subtle and responsive movement only serve to further the enjoyment. To think of controlling the graceful, red plane with anything else seems almost heresy, and returning back to a d-pad will be hard.

Much as the off-beat, alternative fun of the original Pilot Wings sold the SNES, Pilot Wings Resort could repeat the feat to a whole new generation.

Other bits

In between countless trips to Pilot Wings, I was treated to a demo of some of the 3DS’s other features, including the built-in 3D camera. One standard camera faces you on the 3DS’ familiar clamshell, but on the reverse there are two cameras spaced apart that combine to capture pictures in three-dimensions. Practical uses were thin on the ground, but the feature’s inclusion definitely holds a novelty factor that has legs. If the final version also includes editing software akin to that found in DSi, then expect even more japes.

Throughout the whole day, the feature of the 3DS that intrigued me the most was the slider that controlled just how much depth was rendered to the top screen – all the way up and you’d have full 3D; pull it down and the image would revert to a flat frame. Why would anyone have it set to anything less than maximum? And so I fiddled. Even at half-way, the 3D is still effective but seemed to allow the eyes to relax a little more. On the more fast paced demos, such as Mario Kart, this strain was possibly more noticeable, but no more than a passing phase as your eyes become accustomed to the new display. The equivalent, say, of swapping between glasses and contact lenses where the eyes require a few seconds to adjust to the new focal length, and on the more sedate games this transition was nigh on negligible.

All in all, the 3DS is a package that sells itself by simply washing over you with its sheer subtlety and unassuming nature. Many advancements in video games have come about and repeatedly tried to whack you round the face, be it high-def visuals, the encroachment of the online era, or even the now forgotten X-bit wars. With Nintendo’s new hand-held I was met by a puppy, not a marketing man telling me what I wanted; a friendly bark and a lovely game of catch was all I need to be sold. Well, that and a jetplane.

Many will say that you don’t need 3D, and they are completely correct. The industry will function just fine without it, but when it’s executed so well and seamlessly, why would you want anything else.

The Nintendo 3DS is pencilled in for launch in early 2011.

Hydro Thunder Hurricane – Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Platform Reviewed from: Xbox 360

As vultures circled the crippled Midway and picked off scraps of IP, a number of surprising names were gathered up. Most, including Mortal Kombat and Wheelman, went to Warner Bros; but during the fire sale Microsoft also picked up the rights to Hydro Thunder, a powerboat racing game that had enjoyed moderate success on the N64. Could the publisher that originally brought us Blood Wake be buoyed by another water-based game?

Simply booting up Hyrdo Thunder Hurricane feels as though you’ve been transported back to the arcades of the late 90s. Colours are bold and bright, featuring a tropical island, a collection of outlandish boats, and an overenthusiastic announcer that feels the need to shout every selection you’ve made back at you. This may not be a remake, but it definitely keeps the original’s spirit.

Your initial race, too, will keep that feeling of arcade nostalgia flowing as all of Hurricane’s courses are extreme notions of what powerboat racing should be. At first you’ll find yourself racing through the river rapids of an approximation of the Grand Canyon, weaving in and out of rocky outcrops, jumping off some huge waterfalls and working your way through underground caves. Soon you’ll be tacking round Tokyo stadium circuits, riding through frozen stretches to Asgard, and causing waves in lost Incan cities, each bringing their own visual twist to proceedings.

Vector Unit has spent a lot of effort packing each track with shortcuts, secrets and set pieces, each adding to Hurricane’s replay value. Smashing through a hitherto solid wall might not just shave seconds off your time, but also lead to a giant dinosaur rearing up through the water, or provide you with a collectible token to unlock new skins for your boats. One run is never enough to see everything a track has to offer.

Of course, it isn’t just about the outlandish courses; it’s about racing, and racing on the wet stuff feels as though you have taken a car that not only understeers but also insists on powersliding round every bend. It’s a different kettle of fish to traditional racers as the wonderful wave system, influenced by everything from falling rocks to the other vehicles, provides a unique set of challenges as it buffets and harasses you, causing no end of course alterations on particular choppy seas. Handily, though, your boat does have a boost installed, which when engaged gives you a huge increase in straight line speed, or in short bursts can help execute a tricky turn.

New boats are unlocked as you progress, but, whilst their increased stats will assist in handling and speed, unless you’ve wrapped your head around the general physics involved in manoeuvring your vessel the faster times will elude you.

Away from straight racing, there’s also Ring Master and Gauntlet modes. The former places a path of rings on the circuit, the aim being to snake through them all, whilst the latter is a regular time trial mode… there just happens to be explosive barrels littering the course. Both are not only welcome additions to the package but also end up teaching a lot about the tracks and the boats, as the rings occasionally lead you through trickier shortcuts and the barrels encourage a player to learn how to confidently handle their vehicle at speed.

Hyrdro Thunder Hurricane might not hit the dizzy heights of last year’s Summer of Arcade, but it is a surprisingly solid game, given its decade absence. Packed with a large amount of replay value and a level of exploration not usually associated with racing games, it offers something different to others in its genre.

7 /10

Tony Hawk: Ride – Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Platform Reviewed from: Xbox 360

Tony Hawk: Ride, released last November, was noticeable for several reasons. Firstly, it was the landmark tenth game in the series. Secondly, Neversoft, who had been at the helm since number one, were replaced by Robomodo. And finally, continuing Activision’s obsession with huge plastic accessories, it came with a life-sized skateboard peripheral.

Having taken a critical kicking since the arrival of EA’s Skate, this wireless controller was intended to be a return to the Hawkman’s heyday. Packed with all sorts of gadgetry, it can detect a player leaning side-to-side, lifting the nose, and twisting the board left and right. Combined with a handful of IR sensors, it’s designed to allow a player to mimic the basic motions of skateboarding which can then be translated into actual moves in game.

Making sure you’ve cleared a safe radius in your living room, place both feet on the board. To start, move a leg past either side IR sensor, as if you were pushing off on a real skateboard, and you’re rolling. Now the fun can begin: shift your weight partially onto the tail, and you’ll manual; quickly kick the tail down to Ollie; Ollie near an edge and you’ll end up in a grind. Throw in some twists, tilts and grabs over the IR sensors and you’ll get all the variety that can be found in traditional pad-based skateboarding games. The obvious difference here, however, is that the trickier tricks won’t cramp your fingers but require actual physical coordination.

Although intuitive, the change from previous iterations is huge, and sensibly players are offered a variety of skill levels to allow them to become comfortable on the board. The most basic being an on-the-rails, predetermined line, all the way through to complete freedom of movement. Happily, throw any player on the former and they’ll be tricking extremely quickly, having no need to worry about navigation.

At this level, Tony Hawk: Ride is a highly enjoyable entity. The set lines allow basic high-score modes to become more about running realistic routes than cheesing the never-ending grind, and the set challenges offered on each level make you feel as though you’re creating your own highlights reel. Furthermore, throw this board into a party situation and japes will indeed be had.

Soon, however, as the novelty fades and you settle into the meat of the game, the problems become evident, the most damning of which are the peripheral’s sensitivity levels that vary drastically. At times it took me nearly a dozen attempts to start my board rolling, though, conversely, during general trick execution the board has a habit of picking up a host of movements you swear you never made. Possibly even more heinously, it lacks consistency because of this. More advanced tricks are never assured because of slight wobbles or twitches, and you’re never quite sure why they didn’t turn out as they should.

And this is before you even try and start navigating yourself. Please don’t let me relive those moments again.

Activision were right. The Tony Hawk series did need to raise its game to compete with Skate, and I would argue that in the world of Wii, Move and Natal that the skateboard peripheral was a sensible step. Ride’s downfall is not that it is necessarily a bad peripheral, just that it has limitations that you’re forced to work up against time after time.

Whether this will alter in the forthcoming sequel is questionable, but for now there is no way of looking beyond the frailties. For all its good intentions, it’s just face planted on the half-pipe.

4 /10

Ed Vaizey at Develop

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

You have to hand it to Ed Vaizey. After all but promising tax breaks for the video game industry, he willingly went down to Brighton last week to meet industry professionals and explain why the tax breaks were scrapped. It would have been just as easy for him to stay away, but given his self-styling as the Conservative the industry can talk to, he faced his critics head on.

With a steady flow of investment supposedly heading to France, Canada and an array of other countries that offer generous tax breaks for developers and publishers, it was deemed that Britain too needed a similar incentive scheme to remain competitive. On this Vaizey said “to put it bluntly, you haven’t made the case for game tax breaks, because the chancellor didn’t accept it in the Budget. [...] But don’t think just because we don’t have tax breaks the industry is going to fall over. That’s just so wide of the mark.”

The culture minister reiterated the point that beacuse of the challenge of bringing down the national deficit, “certain other priorities fell by the wayside.” Rather than concentrate on one particular sector, the Government has instead opted for more broader measures, including lowering coportation tax and providing R&D incentives. He told the assembled developers that with these measures, the UK “remains in an environment where you can compete.”

From all reports, it sounds like the minister stood up well to the test handed out by the assembled developers, but it wasn’t all flawless. Despite his appearance no doubt boosting his standing, he was left short on many answers, mainly when in reference to Chancellor George Osborne. On more than one occasion he deferred the answer, effectively saying that the decisions lay elsewhere.

That said, along with MPs like Labour’s Tom Watson, this more hands-on approach to industry liaison is hugely positive.

The matter is not closed, however, and Vaizey went on to say that “the Treasury is always open to rational argument and debate.” This surely provides a glimmer of hope to the decision of ELSPA and TIGA to combine their efforts when it comes to campaigning for tax breaks. This concerted effort can only prove beneficial for all associated to the industry.

Crackdown 2 – Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Platform Reviewed from: Xbox 360

In Crackdown 2, your first step is the greatest. It may be the heavy stride of one clodhopping size nine in front of another, but from that sluggish step you embark upon a journey that will turn your Agent from a lumbering oaf into a nimble athlete. Barely being able to jump onto a car roof, let alone scale tall buildings, is insult enough for Crackdown veterans to take off the metaphorical gloves and begin orb consumption.

A decade has elapsed since the conclusion of the original Crackdown, and Pacific City is in one hell of a state. Although recognisable, your surroundings are a dilapidated version of that which you previously bounded around. Infighting has taken its toll and familiar sights lie in ruin, either gutted by fire or razed to the ground entirely. By day, a revolutionary force called The Cell looks to bring down the Agency; and by night, mutants known as Freaks roam the streets, preying upon innocent civilians. With the city on the brink, the Agency spawn you, a genetically enhanced Agent whose sole aim is restoring order.

Combat has changed little, with the option to punch, shoot, blow up or drive over those who oppose you. Each time you perform one of those action you’ll gain XP in that area, eventually making you more proficient in its deadly art and unlocking more devastating tools. Soon, your initial batch of grenades and guns will look like mere pop caps and peashooters compared to the massive firearms and screen-filling explosions that you bring to bear.

The mission structure has been overhauled and is now split into three strands, with the main one centring on eradicating the Freak epidemic by activating a number of “beacons” throughout the city. Each is activated by flicking switches scattered over the rooftops, before descending into the Freaks’ lair to protect a slow-charging UV bomb. The other pair involves action aboveground, retaking strategic locations from both the Freaks and Cell. These are less about babysitting warheads and more about cleaning up the surrounding neighbourhood by any means necessary.

All, however, are broadly comparable to Gears’ Horde mode, but their set-piece nature allows the environment around them to dictate and vary pace. Early strongholds can easily be controlled as they take place in flat, open areas, but as they gain verticality, along with heavier weapons or tougher fighters, their challenge increases. But so too do your options, and rather than just opening up with a machine gun, laughing manically at the crumpling mass of Freaks, you’ll be able to leap up behind snipers and pull them from their perches, toss grenades into fortifications or jump from a great height down into their ranks to let your fists do the talking.

Combat on the whole is perfunctory. The AI’s difficulty is only scaled by the weapons which they hold, and most are only intelligent enough to point the barrel in the correct direction. With a lock-on feature that works adequately, it’s easy enough to take down enemies by simply holding both triggers.

Of course, combat is not the reason why people play Crackdown, it’s the distraction between your latest attempt to scale the city’s skyline. To my mind, Crackdown was the modern evolution of 3D platforming. Whereas Mario may have his stars and coins, Agent has his orbs; and every one is placed temptingly just out of reach, daring you to try and grab it. At almost every level of your agility upgrades you feel that you could reach every green, humming sphere, and it’s a testament to the design and realisation of the city itself that that feeling exists. Whether it be through a cunning use of a neighbouring building, or a quirk in the hits, there seems to be few limitations. Those that do exist don’t frustrate, instead they protect further secrets and will have you hurrying back with the next upgrade.

The sense of freedom when bounding from rooftop to rooftop, soaring high over the streets below, is enough for the Agency vehicles to yet again become redundant. Given the choice of driving along a limited road network or the unhindered exhilaration of not quite knowing whether you’re going to make that jump of not but wanting to try it anyway, is a staggeringly easy answer. Someone should show Faith the Agency’s take on parkour.

If everything is sounding rosy, then that is indeed the case, with the highly enjoyable platforming carrying the game whilst the sandbox combat and variety of roof and road races act as complementary distractions should you tire of the rooftops. The trouble is, I feel we’ve been here before. The inclusion of a new glide suit and moving orbs do little to offset that for the most part Crackdown 2 is identical to its predecessor. The differentiators are only subtle and are further offset by a collection of niggles. Despite the tweaked engine, poor texture resolution and a very grey city make the second less attractive; handling doesn’t feel as smooth; a narrative that seems an afterthought; and although nostalgic twangs are fun, revisiting Pacific City holds very few surprises. The change in developer could play a factor in these, but overall it feels as though someone has tried to recreate an experience rather than evolve or refine it.

Since the original, many sandbox games have come along. Prototype, inFamous, Saints Row, et al, have all given their creative twist on the GTA template, but whereas many have become bogged down in convoluted tales and missions, Crackdown sticks to its guns. For better or for worse. Its freeform nature may be a facsimile of the original but its lack of shackles proves the differentiator. This is not a title that will absorb you due to its depth and complexity; this is a game where you and your friends can juggle cars on rooftops.

That is, if you don’t get distracted by the green glow in your peripheral vision.

7 /10

International Cricket 2010 – Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Platform Reviewed from: 360

Personally, I couldn’t tell you the difference between Cover and Point, though I can explain reverse swing and give you at least seven ways a batsman can be declared out. I’m one of those people who like cricket, but only when England are playing. The sort of fair-weather fan that used to watch the Test Matches all summer long when it resided on terrestrial, but has no interest in taking out a Sky subscription to see the defence of The Ashes. I’m casual to say the least, but still interested enough to done my virtual pads and head out to the middle to take guard against Codemaster’s latest rebranding of their series, International Cricket 2010.

When faced with a semi-unfamiliar sport, stepping straight into a game is a daunting experience, and yet Trickstar’s lessons are well pitched and gently welcome newcomers, even if they are a little lengthy. From the basics of simply connecting with a ball to more advanced notions such as footwork, placement, tactics, and even some bowling tips that border on psychological warfare, they do a wonderful job of educating the uninitiated in all aspects of cricket. Indeed, many other major sport franchises would do well to take heed.

Nothing, however, can prepare you for your first ball faced in anger. No sooner was I guarded against a pacey Australian opener, than I was marching back to the pavilion. Quack.

Batting focuses heavily on timing. As the batsman, you need to take both the pace and type of delivery approaching you and select your shots and footwork respectively. Mistime your swing, select an incorrect shot, or even chose the wrong footwork, and you’ll hear the clatter of your wicket behind you or send the ball careering towards the slips. Though this may sound overwhelming, it soon becomes second nature as you get a feeling for the game. Breaking in each new batter with a series of safe, defensive shots allows you to get into a rhythm with the bowler’s deliveries, helping to crack the timing required to start hitting freely. The more technical points, such as footwork, also resolve themselves with time at the crease, and soon you’ll know intuitively which combinations to avoid and which will bring a succession of runs, even if it is through experimentation.

By the end of my initial innings, I may have not been smacking the ball around the park with all the pomp of Pietersen in full flow, but the early terror of facing a pace attack had subsided. In a strange reflection of that which I was playing, I began each subsequent match nervously; attempting to find my feet; prodding singles; building up confidence before lashing the ball away for successive boundaries. Patience and rhythm are the key.

Bowling is a far easier prospect than batting, but results are based on consistency and variety. With each ball, the type of delivery is chosen and then, in the short time the bowler takes to complete his run-up, length, spin and timing of the release all need to be applied. As with the batting this may sound complex but after a few overs it becomes extremely natural, with a level of involvement that stops the action becoming a mundane, repetitive act, instead requiring a degree of focus each time.

At times it does feel like a thankless task, being knocked to all angles of the field, but such is life in a sport where the score so routinely reaches triple figures. As suggested during the tutorial stage, a plan is required: bowl down a handful of similarly styled deliveries, and then just when the batsman is getting comfortable switch tact and chuck in something unexpected. Hopefully that will force him into a rash decision and leave the door open for a wicket. It’s not easy, mind; especially against the tougher AI opposition, wickets need to be worked for.

It’s a testament to the many iterations of cricket games that Codemasters have produced such involving batting and bowling components. Not only that, but that they both try and portray the subtler aspects of their real world counterparts. Sadly, the third pillar of the game, fielding, is a somewhat different affair; there is little or no input from the player controlling the fielding side once the ball has left the bowler’s hand, apart from pressing A if a catching opportunity presents itself. Though in fairness, running after a ball hit through mid-off is hardly the most gripping of pursuits, and I’d be probably be complaining equally if constantly forced to do so. Even so, the manner in which some fielders field the ball, becoming jarringly locked in a canned animation as they reach down to scoop it up, can break the flow of an otherwise smooth game.

What International Cricket 2010 delivers is the leather-on-willow equivalent to the beautiful game’s Pro Evo: an authentic recreation of the game, if not necessarily replete with all the licensed teams. Both the English and Australian sides are present, along with a host of regular Test Match Special commentators to talk you through the various Twenty-20, One Day Internationals and Test Matches that are on offer. As too with Pro Evo, there are prettier sporting games out there. Stadiums seem very angular and functional, whilst flat textures and lighting do nothing to enhance the look of either players or surroundings.

As an authentic recreation of the game, it is impressive, managing to capture the subtleties associated with the two core facets of the sport – patience for batsmen, discipline for bowlers – and makes each delivery into a mini-tactical battle against the opposition. Furthermore, through Trickstar’s presentation I learned an awful lot more about the finer points of the sport as a whole, which will no doubt be of interest to other casual followers. As an out-and-out game, however, the translation of such a sport has its definite drawbacks, namely the incredibly long time spent doing one task and the highly repetitive nature of said task. For the all-I-watch-are-The-Ashes fans, that will be too much to overlook.

Add a couple of overthrows if you believe that cricket is the reason that the summer was invented, but this one’s been firmly smacked high through Cover for…

6 /10